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Brothers in arms bond like family

A study of Libyan revolutionaries surveyed during the 2011 conflict has found that they were as strongly bonded with each other as with their own families, with the bonds among frontline fighters the strongest of all.

The survey included revolutionaries who served on the frontline with an assault rifle and non-fighters, such as workers who serviced vehicles or drove ambulances. When asked to choose between family and battalion as the group they were most bonded with, frontline fighters were more likely than non-fighters to choose battalion. The study, funded by an ESRC grant at the University of Oxford, suggests that the strongest bonds evolve through sharing bad times, such as the deprivation and negative stress of combat. The findings are published in the early online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In July 2011, four months into the Libyan revolution, one of the Oxford authors Brian McQuinn joined a humanitarian relief convoy travelling to Misrata. While there, he studied how the rebels began as groups of three to five fighters that later developed into the revolutionary groups which prayed, slept and fought side by side in their effort to overthrow the Gaddafi-led regime. Lead author Professor Harvey Whitehouse joined McQuinn as the conflict was ending. Together they persuaded the revolutionary leadership in Misrata to allow them interview and survey 179 civilians from four different battalions that were registered with the Misratan Military Council.

They measured levels of 'identity fusion' – a visceral sense of oneness with the group that has been used in many previous studies as a measure of the extent to which individuals are aligned with groups. Each individual was asked to represent their relationship to the group by choosing from a series of pictures that represented different degrees of overlap between themselves and three groups: their families, their battalions and other battalions. Participants who chose the picture in which the 'self' overlapped completely with the group were said to be 'fused' with the group in question. Researchers found that nearly all (99%) of frontline fighters had strong bonds or 'fused identity' with their own family. However, perhaps more strikingly, a similar level (97%) also indicated fusion with their own battalions and 96% with fighters in other battalions.

Read the full story on the University's website